DEI / Entrepreneurs / Philly Tech Week / Small businesses / Social justice

Why business leaders need to reckon with Philadelphia’s ‘deep, traumatic’ inequality

Before Philadelphia can compete with other innovation capitals, Tayyib Smith said that the city must reconcile its history of injustice.

Philly has "deep, traumatic issues to deal with" before the city can thrive as a city for entrepreneurs. (Photo by Flickr user Tony Fischer Follow, used under a Creative Commons license)
Philly has been a “great place” for Tayyib Smith to grow his businesses.

He and fellow founder Meegan Denenberg have cofounded the highprofile nonprofit Institute of Hip-Hop Entrepreneurship, creative agency Little Giant and Center City coworking space Pipeline Philly.

As a Black man who grew up disadvantaged in a city where the current poverty rate sits at an embarrassing 25.8 percent, Smith has managed to prosper here. Part of the reason why, he argues, is because the cost of owning a business in New York would be “exponentially higher.”

“Tayyib is a high critic,” said Harold Epps, director of commerce at the City of Philadelphia. “I’m encouraged by [that] response.”

“The caveat to that,” Smith quipped back, “me and my partners are probably outliers. I’ve lost a lot of colleagues to other cities … I’m not going to say it’s been easy. It’s been a challenge.”

Starting and growing a business is a challenge for business owners and entrepreneurs anywhere. It’s especially difficult for those outside the more prosperous parts of the city, in neighborhoods like Mantua, where the poverty rate is 43.2 percent.

There’s “deep, traumatic” inequality that needs to be reconciled in neighborhoods such as Mantua before Philly can become a competitive and prosperous city to do business, said Smith.

Epps and Smith were joined by Arcweb CEO Chris Cera, Temple University’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institute Executive Director Ellen Weber and Stephanie Menkin, a business owner who appeared on CNBC’s “The Profit,” for a panel on entrepreneurship moderated by CNBC reporter Kate Rogers.

“The Profit,” which was casting for its upcoming season at La Peg on Columbus Boulevard, partnered with Comcast Business to organize the panel as part of Philly Tech Week 2017 presented by Comcast and Small Business Week. Pretty cool. But back to business.

Or, rather, the barriers to entry for would-be business owners.

“Opportunity is not offered in a meritocratic way in any shape or form in the United States,” argued Smith. “We have deep, heavy, multi-generational work to do in order to, in some way, offer equality in our business community and our education community so we can move toward a more holistic city.”

To which Epps “wholly” agreed, adding that the city is doing what it can to make sure capital is steered toward more women and minority entrepreneurs.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” he said. “But we need to move faster.”

For business owners looking for growth tips, Cera advised a focus on sales generation.

Venture capital, Cera said, can be “a distraction.” The Arcweb founder spent 15 months wooing investors. That’s 15 months not spent wooing customers.

“We’ve grown really fast because we’ve focused on customers and sales,” Cera said. “Focus on customers, focus on sales, take the [customer] feedback and focus on your business.”

Plus, added Weber, angel investors and venture capitalists “only fund one out of every 5,000 businesses.” Weber pushed crowdfunding sites such as Kiva as “equalizers.” They take as much work as other types of funding, but are inherently more accessible.

Venture capital isn’t for everyone, anyway.

“When I see people raised money,” said Cera, “my first reaction is, ‘Did they have to do that?'”

Shows like NBC’s “Shark Tank” (and, yes, even “The Profit”) certainly don’t help break down that perception that angel investors are the only way to raise capital. And while bank loans aren’t a realistic option for most entrepreneurs with fledgling businesses, there are more accessible options.

Like the people around you. Family and friends who are willing to invest in your business. Established business owners who are willing to mentor entrepreneurs just getting into the game.

Mentorship, said Weber, is a strong suit in Philadelphia’s business community. Those relationships can be the intangible key to creating access to opportunity for entrepreneurs across the city, from Mantua to Center City and beyond.

As Smith put it: “Your network is your net worth.”

Companies: Comcast

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